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Farm Radio.

Today, most homes in the United States that want electricity can have it provided through a vast electrical system that is fed from massive generating plants. However, that was not the case in the past.

A vintage radio that is displayed today in the kitchen room of the Grand Blanc Heritage Museum seems a little out of place among the other non-electric household implements of the early twentieth century. Radios can only operate by electricity, yet they were commonly found in rural homes far from the electrical grid. How did they work?

Electrification began in the late nineteenth century and spread quickly in urban areas of Michigan, arriving in Grand Blanc in approximately 1908. At that time, much of the country's population still lived in rural areas, usually on farms. Construction of electrical distribution infrastructure was expensive, and most power companies were unwilling to invest in miles of poles and wires to serve only a few widely separated customers in rural areas.

Lack of electrical power in large portions of Michigan denied many advancements in the standard of living to rural residents. Businesses and industries would not locate in rural areas. Food safety was compromised due to a lack of mechanical refrigeration. For much of the early twentieth century, many Michiganders were forced to do without electricity--or get it another way.

The solution for many was to generate their own electricity. Although batteries were available, they were heavy, proved comparatively expensive, and had to be taken to an electrified area to be recharged. While gasoline-driven generators were available, the least expensive way to produce electricity was with a wind generator. That electric generator was gear-driven from a large propeller; mounted on a tall tower; and connected to a bank of rechargeable batteries, usually the lead-acid type, in heavy glass cells in a separate outbuilding. From there, the electricity was wired through farm buildings to operate lighting and a variety of appliances, depending on the capacity of the generating system. A whole array of similar "farm" appliances were manufactured, designed to run on the eventual standard operating voltage of 32 volts DC (direct current).

In 1936, during the height of the Great Depression, a New Deal program called the Rural Electrification Act was initiated to bring electricity to the rest of me country. The act provided low-interest loans for electric cooperatives to extend power distribution lines into the countryside and construct new generating plants to service additional demand. As electrification spread, the market for self-contained generating systems shrank until only a few remote areas were left without utility-supplied electric power.

Because radio offered isolated families a connection to the outside world, it was among the first appliances designed to run from wind-generated power. The conversion from operation within a home system to that of a power company seemed straightforward, since the radio wires and wiring hardware were largely the same, but it was soon discovered that none of the appliances could be converted.

A rebirth of home-generating systems is advocated today by individuals and organizations promoting "green" power. However, few of the early generating systems have survived in working order because a condition of connecting to utility companies was that wind-generating systems had to be permanently deactivated. That was done by many farmers in the most expedient way--with a well-placed round from a hunting rifle!

The farm radio pictured above is a part of the kitchen room display at the Grand Blanc Heritage Museum. The display also includes historic lanterns, an icebox, a gas stove, a hand-powered washing machine, and even a hand-pumped vacuum cleaner. For more information about the museum, visit

By Daniel Harrett

Daniel Harrett is the director of the Grand Blanc Heritage Association.

Caption: The Grand Blanc Heritage Museum's vintage radio. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

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Title Annotation:FACTS & FINDS
Author:Harrett, Daniel
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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